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President Paying His Legal Bills by Mail

Supporters of President Clinton have raised more than $2.2 million in the first six months of a direct mail campaign to defray the costs of the chief executive's mounting legal bills. So far, the campaign has seen a 10 percent response.

Although it's too early to gauge the effect of Clinton's admission of an “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton Legal Expense Trust executive director Anthony Essaye said that as of the end of August no one had asked for a refund.

The trust, formed in February by former Arkansas Sen. David Pryor, already has exceeded the $1.3 million total achieved over 3 1/2 years by a previous trust run for the Clintons that ran afoul of campaign finance and ethics laws.

The new trust has paid out $1.25 million for Clinton's legal bills, adding to the $750,000 provided by the original. More than $4.5 million in legal fees remain, and the ledger is rising at an estimated $1 million a year.

Clinton is the first sitting president to accept donations to cover his legal bills. Although members of Congress have their own legal expense funds, the national direct mail effort is thought to be the first on behalf of a president not related to an election, said Paul Hendrie, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, Washington, DC. The new trust has benefited from a contribution limit of $10,000 (up from $1,000) and the support of such celebrities as Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand. Yet most of the contributions have come from more than 17,000 respondents who have given an average of $130. The average contribution for Clinton's 1996 re-election was $47.

The trust had dropped 170,000 mail pieces by the end of August. Mailings have been sent in waves, with new ones going out once enough responses have been received to cover administrative costs.

“We've gotten a 10 percent return, which we're very happy with,” said trust administrator Peter Lavallee.

The Legal Expense Trust has mailed to lists of registered Democrats, contributors to the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign and to other Democratic organizations like the Democratic National Committee. The typical mail piece, which has been updated as the investigation of the president proceeds, has consisted of a letter signed by Pryor detailing the financial plight of the first family.

“We tried to be as nonpartisan as we could,” Lavallee said. “We mentioned that the independent counsel's investigation had spent $40 million more to put the [president's] legal costs in context.”

Lavallee said special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is not mentioned by name but there is reference to the Paula Jones lawsuit. Supporters admit, however, that the Starr backlash has been a catalyst for contributions. Pryor's letter reads in part, “If you are disturbed by the way politics is conducted today, then what better response than to make your own gesture of decency and generosity. I know that it will be an enormous comfort to the first family to know that so many Americans appreciate their work and have come to their aid.”

David Litwinsky, president of Direct Mail Services, New York, said such a tone is typical of nonprofit mailings.

“Urgency is emphasized in the text. It's a very common practice. The urgency of it makes it even more valuable and you can expect much better results in political campaigns.”

Hendrie, whose group is concerned that concepts like a legal expense trust fund create yet another avenue to bypass political contribution limits, said such direct mail solicitations can be dangerous if targeted to the wrong groups.

“Reaching out to people in this way, you want to be careful,” he said. “You don't want people on Social Security to be politically spun to give money.”

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